Amnesty International today welcomed the European Commission’s announcement that it would use its powers to initiate infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for breaching European Union (EU) anti-discrimination legislation.
“For years, Amnesty International has documented systemic discrimination against Roma children in Czech schools. Yet the Czech government has so far failed to take effective measures to prevent, address and remedy this,” said Nicolas J. Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office. “In agreeing to launch infringement proceedings, the Commission has sent a clear message to the Czech Republic and other member states – systemic discrimination towards Roma cannot and will not be tolerated.”
The pre-litigation mechanism enables the Commission to hold the Czech government accountable for, and publicly and politically put pressure on it to end, the ongoing, systemic and unlawful practice of discrimination against Romani children in Czech schools.
The announcement comes one and a half years after Amnesty International and other civil society organisations called on the Commission to engage with the Czech government through infringement proceedings to tackle education discrimination against Romani children. The organisation presented a petition with nearly 100,000 signatures gathered in under three months calling on the Commission to take stronger action against EU member states failing to implement EU anti-discrimination legislation to protect Roma. These calls were based on evidence, gathered over a decade, of widespread unlawful discrimination against Romani children in Czech education, notably through segregation into schools for pupils with ‘mild mental disabilities’ or Roma-only schools, or classes offering lower educational standards.
“Education is a human right that must be guaranteed to all children. Discrimination through segregated education is unlawful. It leads to poorer education and limits future employment opportunities, trapping Romani children in a vicious cycle of marginalisation and exclusion,” added Beger.
A 2013 survey by the Czech Schools Inspectorate (the national body responsible for ensuring schools comply with national legislation) exposed the disproportionately high number of Romani children in schools for pupils with ‘mild mental disabilities’. The monitoring of 483 schools with five or more pupils with this diagnosis found that a staggering 28.2% of them were Roma. However, Roma make up less than three percent of the total population. The Czech Ombudsperson (responsible for monitoring and ensuring compliance with anti-discrimination legislation) found this to be discriminatory in 2012.
The prospects for Romani children that do make it to ‘main-stream’ education are not much better. Many are segregated into schools and classes with lower educational standards. In 2014, Amnesty International has continued to collect evidence of Roma-only mainstream schools in which the educational programmes followed differed very little from those of schools for pupils with ‘mild mental disabilities’.
“Today the Commission has lived up to its role as ‘guardian of the EU Treaties’, upholding EU law, and challenging member states for violating fundamental rights,” said Beger. “The Commission’s words must now be followed by swift, concrete, and consistent action to hold the Czech Republic accountable and stop discrimination. This will be essential to protect not only the current and future generations of Roma in the Czech Republic, but across the EU, where they continue to face routine discrimination.”
Infringement proceedings as established by Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union provide the Commission with an effective legislative tool to engage with the 28 European EU member states to ensure compliance with EU law. Member states found to be in breach of EU law may be brought to the Court of Justice for the European Union. If the Court finds a member state has failed to fulfil an obligation under the Treaties, it will require the state to take the necessary measures to comply.
The decision to launch the proceedings against the Czech Republic was announced today, 25 September, following a meeting of the College of Commissioners. The proceedings call into question the Czech Republic’s compliance with: Article 21 (1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which prohibits discrimination based on any ground such as race or ethnic origin; and the Race Equality Directive (2000/43/EC (RED)) Articles 2.2a, 2.2b, 2.3, 3.1.g, which prohibit discrimination in access to education on the grounds of race or ethnicity.
The Commission will now send a formal notice with its assessment of the situation to the Czech government which will be given a deadline to submit its observations. After that, the Commission will conclude whether the Czech Republic is indeed failing to comply with EU law. In case of an infringement, the Commission may bring the matter before the Court of Justice of the European Union.